With fuel prices soaring to record-breaking numbers, school districts across the nation have been forced to rethink standard practices and cut corners just to keep their budgets afloat. From virtualizing field trips to switching to open software, districts are trying to adapt to what could be only the beginning of an escalating crisis.

For example, various news reports reveal that in Jefferson County, Ore., officials have spent nearly all of the $165,000 they budgeted for gas and have overspent the $10,000 budgeted for diesel fuel by more than $60,000; Baltimore City, Md., schools have suffered a $300,000 dollar hit in their budget for transportation costs, as the price for diesel fuel jumped by $1.80 per gallon over the last year; students at the Putnam County Schools east of Nashville, Tenn., went without bus service on their last day of school; and a Minnesota school district plans to cut back classes to four days a week this fall to save on transportation costs.

For Choctaw-Nicoma Park Public School District in Oklahoma City, Okla., the district’s annual fuel budget totaled $225,000 three years ago, when prices averaged a little more than $2 a gallon; this year, however, the budget is around $350,000.

Yet, despite rising gas prices, the state Legislature did not grant an increase in school operational expenses that was requested by Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett.

"It rolls downhill to the classroom," said Jim McCharen, Choctaw-Nicoma Park’s superintendent, of the impact of soaring gas prices. "Sometimes, the belt-tightening choices should not be on the backs of our school kids."

"We can’t continue to offer all the services we’ve always offered and function without losing money," said Terry Simpson, superintendent of the Gutherie Public Schools in Mississippi.

This fall, the 3,300-student district will implement a new transportation policy that does away with bus routes for students who live within 1.5 miles of the school they attend–a policy that already has been implemented by other local school districts.

"We have to cut programs just to buy gas. That’s where it gets very frustrating. We get very angry about it," says McCharen.

And there’s plenty to be angry about: Just keeping up with fuel prices has led administrators across the country to pay for gas with money that was supposed to be used for classroom programs.

McCharen’s district won’t be hiring any new teachers for the upcoming school year, so the district can afford to keep its buses on the road.

The Dougherty County School System in Albany, G.A., is planning to increase meal prices in 2009 because of rising food costs for the system. Because gas prices are driving up food prices and federal funds for child nutrition are limited, the only variable the school system has is in food prices charged to students, says Robert Lloyd, director of business and finance.

Baltimore City Schools are reviewing the 6,500 scheduled trips for athletic events and field trips that will cost around $100,000–more than the system had budgeted for at a time of lower gas prices.

At Bend-La Pine Schools in Oregon, staff are sharing rides when possible and making use of hybrid cars.

But bus routes are not the only programs being revised.

According to Marc Liebman, superintendent of California’s Berryessa Union School District, technology budgets could come under the knife, too.

"We have to increase our fuel budgets, which means there is less for everything else," Liebman explains. He says his district is limiting any new technology or software purchases next year largely to donations.

Lan Neugent, assistant superintendent for technology at the Virginia Department of Education, believes schools will feel pressure to cut their budgets for upgrades or maintenance of technology. "Professional development across the board, and especially for technology, will likely be cut back," he adds.

Because many districts implemented conservation efforts years ago, there is little room to control these costs as fuel prices rise, said Raymond Yeagley, director of strategic projects for the Northwest Evaluation Association and a former schools superintendent in New Hampshire.

"Accordingly, districts are once again balancing the value of teachers in the classroom with other priorities that might have less instructional impact–including technology purchases," says Yeagley.

Yet, technology programs–which typically are vulnerable to budget cuts–can be the one investment that helps schools mitigate fuel costs.

For example, schools can save money by allowing students to take virtual field trips and providing online courses. Web-based conferencing systems also can help schools save on staff travel, paper, and printing expenses.

Darrell Walery, director of technology for the Consolidated High School District 230 in Illinois, said his district makes use of conference calling and online meetings to save on gas consumption and paper costs, and his district is upgrading certain online communications channels to save on these expenses as well. (See "School leaders get advice on ‘green’ computing.")

Liebman says his district is shifting toward using OpenOffice software in its computer labs instead of Microsoft’s proprietary Office suite. As they buy new administrative computers, Berryessa schools will shift the Microsoft Office licenses they already own in the computer labs to these computers and will replace them in the labs with OpenOffice licenses, which are free.
 
"We anticipate that this will save our district about $5,000 to $6,000. Not a bundle, but certainly enough to cover much of the increased fuel costs or lower some small part of our budget deficit," Liebman explains.

Jane McDonald, a former associate professor at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Education, believes that if school districts are savvy, they will maintain or even increase their technology budgets.

She says K-12 districts should consider delivering more of their instruction online, with follow-up instruction in the classroom. Many colleges and universities are adopting this "hybrid" approach, she notes, with some anecdotal evidence of success. (See "Hybrid courses show promise.") In fact, if districts could connect to individual homes, or learning centers, through technology, perhaps they could reduce the number of days that some students attend their school buildings each week.

"Without fuel for mobility, and with the possible cuts in personnel and teacher bonuses, technology is a way to get more bang for your buck," says McDonald.

McDonald believes the current fuel crisis might be an opportunity to rethink, restructure, and reorganize the traditional educational system.

"Do we have to all learn in one big building, strategically located? Do all teachers need to be present at school buildings to teach?" she asks. "Perhaps outsourcing and private takeovers of districts will [occur]–offering a buffet of courses from which to select, through technology. Perhaps students can bring their cars to school if they show evidence of bringing others to school as well. Perhaps schools can be organized on a small, K-12 basis, within neighborhoods."

Concludes McDonald: "With the help of technology, the opportunities for learning and reinforcing with local teachers can expand."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Choctaw-Nicoma Park Public School District

Berryessa Union School District

Northwest Evaluation Association

Virginia Department of Education